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Jonas Salk

Jonas Salk Photo

Jonas Edward Salk was born in October 1914 in New York City to Russian-Jewish immigrants Daniel and Dora Salk. Salk was an American physician and medical researcher credited with the discovery of the first safe-to-use polio vaccine. When he was 13, Salk attended a public school for intellectually gifted children called Townsend Harris High School. Upon graduating from high school Salk enrolled in the City College of New York where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry in 1934. Salk then went on to attain his M.D. from New York University in 1939. Since NYU charged less tuition and accepted Jews more willingly than the rest, it was a natural pathway for Salk after community college. Salk had initially aspired to study law at NYU, but in lieu of his mother’s wish, continued with medicine.  Upon completion of his M.D. from NYU, Salk became a scientist physician at Mount Sinai Hospital.

Salk served at Mount Sinai for two years before embarking on a fellowship at University of Michigan in 1942 to study flu viruses under Dr. Thomas Francis Jr. and developed an influenza vaccine. It was in Francis’ lab that Salk was first introduced to virology, for Francis had just discovered the type B influenza virus and took Salk under his wing to teach him the methodology of vaccine development.

After a brief stint at Francis’ lab, Salk signed up as an associate professor of bacteriology and director of the Virus Research Laboratory at the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Medicine in 1947. He was granted a lab, and he was set on conducting additional research in virology. It was during this time that Salk was contacted by Harry Weaver, the director of research at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, who asked of him to look into additional variations of polio. At the time, hundreds of children were struck by the disease in its most deadly form – paralytic poliomyelitis.

After a swath of research in his lab and subsequent testing on animals, Salk initially tested his vaccine on 43 individuals, comprising himself, his wife and children, his lab scientist and other volunteers, all of whom had not previously acquired polio and all of whom developed anti-polio antibodies and experienced no negative reactions to the vaccine. According to Salk, the vaccine comprised of “killed” polio virus, which would help immunize the body against the wrath of the active polio virus without by itself infecting the receiver of the vaccine.

Preliminary testing of the vaccine began in 1952 when over 1.8 million children between the age of six and nine were given the vaccine. Among these children were those who had either recovered from polio or those who had not encountered the disease.  The clinical trial continued with more children being vaccinated. Towards the end of the trial, it became apparent that the immunization virus was capable of warding off polio and safe enough to not infect any receivers with the disease. On April 12, 1954, Salk made his research and outcomes of one of the largest clinical trials in public and the vaccine was made available for general use.

Throughout the clinical trial, Salk was at the receiving end on unwavering support and funding from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis who also helped promote hiss efforts in creating the vaccine.

After his momentous feat, Jonas Salk continued to serve as professor of bacteriology, preventive medicine, and experimental medicine at Pittsburgh and in 1963 founded the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, where he also served as fellow and director. For his contributions to the world of preventive medicine and scientific research Salk was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1977.

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